As part of the anthropogenic climate change debate, and when discussing the proposed plans for transition to Net Zero, efforts have been made to analyse the thinking that underpins the typical sceptic’s position. These analyses have universally presupposed that such scepticism stubbornly persists in the face of overwhelming evidence, as reflected in the widespread use of the term ‘denier’. Consequently, they are based upon taxonomies of flawed reasoning and methods of deception and misinformation.1 However, by taking such a prejudicial approach, the analyses have invariably failed to acknowledge the ideological, philosophical and psychological bases for sceptical thinking. The following taxonomy redresses that failing and, as a result, offers a more pertinent analysis that avoids the worst excesses of opinionated philippic. The taxonomy identifies a basic set of ideologies and attitudes that feature prominently in the typical climate change sceptic’s case. For my taxonomy I have chosen the acronym FLICC:2
- Follow data but distrust judgement and speculation
i.e. value empirical evidence over theory and conjecture.
- Look for the full risk profile
i.e. when considering the management of risks and uncertainties, demand that those associated with mitigating and preventative measures are also taken into account.
- Interrogate causal arguments
i.e. demand that both necessity and sufficiency form the basis of a causal analysis.
i.e. distrust consensus as an indicator of epistemological value.
- Cultural awareness
i.e. never underestimate the extent to which a society can fabricate a truth for its own purposes.
All of the above have a long and legitimate history outside the field of climate science. The suggestion that they are not being applied in good faith by climate change sceptics falls beyond the remit of taxonomical analysis and strays into the territory of propaganda and ad hominem.
The five ideologies and attitudes of climate change scepticism introduced above are now discussed in greater detail.
Following the data
Above all else, the sceptical approach is characterized by a reluctance to draw conclusions from a given body of evidence. When it comes to evidence supporting the idea of a ‘climate crisis’, such reluctance is judged by many to be pathological and indicative of motivated reasoning. Cognitive scientists use the term ‘conservative belief revision’ to refer to an undue reluctance to update beliefs in accordance with a new body of evidence. More precisely, when the individual retains the view that events have a random pattern, thereby downplaying the possibility of a causative factor, the term used is ‘slothful induction’. Either way, the presupposition is that the individual is committing a logical fallacy resulting from cognitive bias. Others, however, prefer to emphasise the role of motivated reasoning and therefore resort to terminology aimed at condemnation; such reluctance to draw a conclusion is simply dismissed as self-serving denialism.
However, far from being a pathology of thinking, such reluctance has its legitimate foundations in Pyrrhonian philosophy and, when properly understood, it can be seen as an important thinking strategy.3 Conservative belief revision and slothful induction can indeed lead to false conclusions but, more importantly, the error most commonly encountered when making decisions under uncertainty (and the one with the greatest potential for damage) is to downplay unknown and possibly random factors and instead construct a narrative that overstates and prejudges causation. This tendency is central to the human condition and it lies at the heart of our failure to foresee the unexpected – this is the truly important cognitive bias that the sceptic seeks to avoid.
We know of Pyrrhonian philosophy primarily through the writings of Sextus Empiricus, a philosopher who probably lived in the second or third century CE. He describes an extreme form of scepticism that denies all bases for belief. To the Pyrrhonian there is the evidence and nothing else. Any attempt to draw a conclusion is destined to be contradicted by an alternative, and so peace of mind is only possible through abandonment of the attempt. Whilst this mode of thinking may not be prevalent in modern day thinking, much of the sentiment survives in what Professor Nassim Taleb refers to as ‘empirical scepticism’.4 The empirical sceptic is cognisant of evidence and allows the formulation of theories but treats them with considerable caution due to the many ways in which such theories often entail unwarranted presupposition. The drivers behind this problem are the propensity of the human mind to seek patterns, to construct narratives that hide complexities, to over-emphasise the causative role played by human agents and to under-emphasise the role played by external and possibly random factors. Ultimately, it is a problem regarding the comprehension of uncertainty — we comprehend in a manner that has served us well in evolutionary terms but has left us vulnerable to unprecedented, high consequence events.
Contrary to the Pyrrhonian assumption, the desire to draw conclusions is so strong5 that remaining an empirical sceptic is quite a difficult and effortful undertaking. As Taleb puts it:
“It takes considerable effort to see facts (and remember them) while withholding judgement and resisting explanations. And this theorizing disease is rarely under our control: it is largely anatomical, part of our biology, so fighting it requires fighting one’s own self.…Try to be a true sceptic with respect to your interpretations and you will be worn out in no time. You will also be humiliated for resisting to theorize.”
This quote should resonate with the climate change sceptic for two reasons. Firstly, there is the use of the term ‘true sceptic’. It is often said that a true sceptic is one who is prepared to accept the prevailing theory once the evidence is ‘overwhelming’. The climate change sceptic’s reluctance to do so is taken as an indication that he or she is not a true sceptic. However, we see here that true scepticism lies in the willingness to challenge the idea that the evidence is overwhelming – it only seems overwhelming to those who fail to recognise the ‘theorizing disease’ and lack the resolve to resist it. Secondly, there cannot be a climate change sceptic alive who is not painfully aware of the humiliation handed out to those who resist the theorizing.
In practice, the theorizing and the narratives that trouble the empirical sceptic take many forms. It can be seen in the over-dependence upon mathematical models for which the tuning owes more to art than science. It can be seen in the readiness to treat the output of such models as data resulting from experiment, rather than the hypotheses they are. It can be seen in the lack of regard for ontological uncertainty (i.e. the unknown unknowns which, due to their very nature, the models do not address). It can be seen in the emergence of story-telling as a primary weapon in the armoury of extreme weather event attribution.6 It can be seen in the willingness to commit trillions of pounds to courses of action that are predicated upon Representative Concentration Pathways and economic models that are the ‘theorizing disease’ writ large. It can be seen in the contributions of the myriad of activists who seek to portray the issues in a narrative form laden with social justice and other ethical considerations. It can be seen in the imaginative but simplistic portrayals of climate change sceptics and their motives; portrayals that are drawing categorical conclusions that cannot possibly be justified given the ‘evidence’ offered. And it can be seen in any narrative that turns out to be unfounded when one follows the data. Climate change may have its basis in science and data, but this basis has long since been overtaken by a plethora of theorizing and narrative that sometimes appears to have taken on a life of its own. Is this what settled science is supposed to look like?
Looking for the full risk profile
Almost as fundamental as the sceptic’s resistance to theorizing and narrative is his or her appreciation that the management of anthropogenic warming (particularly the transition to Net Zero) is an undertaking beset with risk and uncertainty. This concern reflects a fundamental principle of risk management: proposed actions to tackle a risk are often in themselves problematic and so a full risk analysis is not complete until it can be confirmed that the net risk will decrease following the actions proposed.7 When such issues are raised by the sceptic, the counterarguments offered by the activist typically take one of two forms:
a) The physical risks associated with unchecked anthropogenic global warming are potentially existential or so severe that the precautionary principle applies. No cost benefit analysis need be performed in these circumstances.
b) The transition risks and costs are well understood and so a cost benefit analysis, were it to be performed, would still show that the actions proposed for Net Zero are both practicable and achievable and will result in a net reduction of risk.
The sceptic accepts neither of the above arguments, and for very good reasons.
Firstly, the narrative of existential risk is rejected on the grounds of empirical scepticism (the evidence for an existential threat is not overwhelming, it is underwhelming). Secondly, even if the narrative is accepted, it has not been reliably demonstrated that the proposal for Net Zero transition is free from existential or extreme risks. Indeed, given the dominant role played by the ‘theorizing disease’ and how it lies behind our inability to envisage the unprecedented high consequence event, there is every reason to believe that the proposals for Net Zero transition should be equally subject to the precautionary principle. The fact that they are not is indicative of a double standard being applied. The argument seems to run as follows: There is no uncertainty regarding the physical risk posed by climate change, but if there were it would only add to the imperative for action. There is also no uncertainty regarding the transition risk, but if there were it could be ignored because one can only apply the precautionary principle once! This is precisely the sort of inconsistency one encounters when uncertainties are rationalised away in order to support the favoured narrative.
The upshot of this double standard is that the activists appear to be proceeding with two very different risk management frameworks depending upon whether physical or transition risk is being considered. As a result, risks associated with renewable energy security, the environmental damage associated with proposals to reduce carbon emissions and the potentially catastrophic effects of the inevitable global economic shock are all played down or explained away. This selective blindness to risk is even more pronounced when seen from the perspective of individual nations who are determined to press ahead, seemingly oblivious to the lack of competitiveness they invite when compared to countries who are less committed to the transition. These issues are also explained away in a bluster of moralizing and beguiling tales of green dividend. However, this just demonstrates that there isn’t a risk in the world that cannot be ‘managed’ by using a sufficiently simplistic narrative.
Looking for the full risk profile is a basic of risk management practice. The fact that it is seen as a ploy used only by those wishing to oppose the management of anthropogenic climate change is both odd and worrying. It is indeed important to the sceptic, but it should be important to everyone.
Interrogating causal arguments
For many years we have been told that anthropogenic climate change will make bad things happen. These dire predictions were supposed to galvanize the world into action but that didn’t happen, no doubt partly due to the extent to which such predictions repeatedly failed to come true (as, for example, with the predictions of the disappearance of Arctic sea ice). Seeing that no one was particularly bothered about the far future, the IPCC re-drew the line to bring the point of no return closer to home, until it finally decreed that extreme weather attribution studies were confirming that it had already arrived (although, of course, there was still worse to come). The narrative states that this reappraisal was science driven, but that claim is somewhat undermined by the fact that the IPCC declared up front its intention to employ this tactic (in AR5, WG3, Chapter 2, to be precise). This is one good reason for the empirical sceptic to distrust the narrative,8 but an even better one lies in the very concept of causation.
A major purpose of narrative is to reduce complexity so that the ‘truth’ can shine through. This is particularly the case with causal narratives. We all want executive summaries and sound bites such as ‘Y happened because of X’. But very few of us are interested in examining exactly what we mean by such statements – very few except, of course, for the empirical sceptics. In a messy world in which many factors may be at play, the more pertinent questions are:
- To what extent was X necessary for Y to happen?
- To what extent was X sufficient for Y to happen?
The vast majority of the extreme weather event attribution narrative is focused upon the first question and very little attention is paid to the second; at least not in the many press bulletins issued. Basically, we are told that the event was virtually impossible without climate change, but very little is said regarding whether climate change on its own was enough. Despite the fact that climate change forms a backdrop to a great deal of natural variability, and it is the latter that is often the dominant causation, we are nevertheless always treated to the stark warning that Y was due to climate change. This problem of oversimplification is even more worrying once one starts to examine consequential damages whilst failing to take into account man-made failings such as those that exacerbate the impacts of floods and forest fires.9
The problem of the oversimplification of causal narrative is not restricted to weather-related events, of course. Climate change, we are told, is wreaking havoc with the flora and fauna and many species are dying out as a result. However, when such claims are examined more closely,10 it is invariably the case that climate change has been lumped in with a number of other factors that are destroying habitat. The extent to which climate change is sufficient for the decline in species is usually very low but that does not stop the press (and scientists who should know better) from issuing grossly distorted attributions on the often flimsy pretext that climate change can’t be helping.
When climate change sceptics point this out they are, of course, accused of cherry-picking. The truth, however, is that their insistence that the extended causal narrative of necessity and sufficiency should be respected is nothing more than the consequence of following the data and looking for the full risk profile.
The climate change debate is all about making decisions under uncertainty, so it is little surprise that gaining consensus is seen as centrally important. Uncertainty is reduced when the evidence is overwhelming and it is tempting to believe that the high level of consensus amongst climate scientists surely points towards there being overwhelming evidence. If one accepts this logic then the sceptic’s refusal to accept the consensus is just another manifestation of his or her denial.
Except, of course, an empirical sceptic would not accept this logic. Consensus does not result from a simple examination of concordant evidence, it is instead the fruit of the tendentious theorizing and simplifying narrative that the empirical sceptic intuitively distrusts. As explained above, there are a number of drivers that cause such theories and narratives to entail unwarranted presupposition, and it is naïve to believe that scientists are immune to such drivers. As Nassim Taleb puts it:
“Now, if you think that science is an abstract subject free of sensationalism and distortions, I have some sobering news. Empirical researchers have found evidence that scientists too are vulnerable to narratives, emphasising titles and ‘sexy’ attention-grabbing punch lines over more substantive matters. They too are human and get their attention from sensational matters.”
I could add to the above that scientists are also social animals who are prone to congregating around ideas and can develop consensus for reasons that have more to do with social cohesion than anything else. This is not a conspiracy theory. Nobody is conspiring to deceive anyone, with the possible exception of themselves. However, the fact remains that consensus on beliefs is neither a sufficient nor a necessary condition for presuming that these beliefs constitute shared knowledge. It is only when a consensus on beliefs is uncoerced, uniquely heterogeneous and large, that a shared knowledge provides the best explanation of a given consensus.11 The notion that a scientific consensus can be trusted because scientists are permanently seeking to challenge accepted views is simplistic at best. It is actually far from obvious that in climate science the conditions have been met for consensus to be a reliable indicator of shared knowledge.
All of this matters because the IPCC has taken the view that high levels of consensus add to the evidential weight in favour of a theory.12 The difficulties in this approach should be obvious; strength of agreement is not a reliable substitute for strength of evidence. It is of considerable concern to see that the IPCC has committed this basic error because it is bound to fuel overconfidence in the conclusions drawn. It is bad enough that a theory may be based upon unwarranted presuppositions; it is worse still that the number of people who fail to appreciate this may form part of the evidential weight in its favour.
Given these difficulties, the sceptic should make no apologies for challenging consensus. It is easy to accuse such sceptics of being in denial because they fail to appreciate how close 97 is to 100. It is also easy to accuse them of engaging in conspiracy theory. However, neither accusation is valid. Consensus may or may not be a fact, but even if it is, what that fact indicates is often an open question. The term ‘contrarian’ is now used as an alternative insult to ‘denier’ since it implies a stubbornness against accepting what everyone else can see. However, contrariness simply comes with the territory of being an empirical sceptic. The evidence of consensus is there to be seen, but the amount of theorizing and narrative required for its genesis, together with the social dimension to consensus generation, are enough for the empirical sceptic to treat the whole matter of consensus with a great deal of caution.
There has been a great deal said already regarding the culture wars surrounding issues such as the threat posed by anthropogenic climate change. Most of the concerns are directed at the sceptic, who for reasons never properly explained is deemed to be the instigator of the conflict. However, it is the sceptic who chooses to point out that the value-laden arguments offered by climate activists are best understood as part of a wider cultural movement in which rationality is subordinate to in-group versus outgroup dynamics. The debate as to whether the slothful induction of the empirical sceptic is justified or not in the light of the current evidence is a question of rationality. The sceptic’s concerns regarding risk profiles, causal narrative and consensus also have a basis in rational judgement. However, when one steps back and observes the nature of the accusations levelled at the sceptical, it is difficult to see how rationality applies. We would be deluding ourselves in thinking that societies that owe their cohesion to a sense of shared values, and are populated by individuals who are all chemically addicted to their own opinions, would allow a debate such as that regarding anthropogenic climate change to progress in accordance with the imperatives of rationality. Ultimately, what matters most is that the cultural underpinnings of the human project are secured against the dissent of the outgroup. Professor Mike Hulme once wrote:
“Because the idea of climate change is so plastic, it can be deployed across many of our human projects and can serve many of our psychological, ethical and spiritual needs…We need to ask not what we can do for climate change, but to ask what climate change can do for us.”
Psychological, ethical and spiritual needs lie at the heart of the development of culture and so the adoption of the climate change phenomenon in service of these needs has to be seen as essentially a cultural power play. The dangers of uncritically accepting the fruits of theorizing and narrative are only the beginning of the empirical sceptic’s concerns. Beyond that is the concern that the direction the debate is taking is not even a matter of empiricism – data analysis has little to offer when so much depends upon whether the phenomenon is subsequently to be described as warming or heating. It is for this reason that much of the sceptic’s attention is directed towards the manner in which the science features in our culture rather than the science itself. Such are our psychological, ethical and spiritual needs, that we must not underestimate the extent to which ostensibly scientific output can be moulded in their service.
Taxonomies of thinking should not be treated too seriously. Whilst I hope that I have offered here a welcome antidote to the diatribe that often masquerades as a scholarly appraisal of climate change scepticism, it remains the case that the form that scepticism takes will be unique to the individual. I could not hope to cover all aspects of climate change scepticism in the limited space available to me, but it remains my belief that there are unifying principles that can be identified. Central to these is the concept of the empirical sceptic and the need to understand that there are sound reasons to treat theorizing and simplifying narratives with extreme caution. The empirical sceptic resists the temptation to theorize, preferring instead to keep an open mind on the interpretation of the evidence. This is far from being self-serving denialism; it is instead a self-denying servitude to the data. That said, I cannot believe that there would be any activist who, upon reading this account, would see a reason to modify their opinions regarding the bad faith and irrationality that lies behind scepticism. This, unfortunately, is only to be expected given that such opinions are themselves the result of theorizing and simplifying narrative.
Notes and References:
 My views on the value of such taxonomies can be found here.
 In ‘honour’ of a certain John Cook. If nothing else, this demonstrates how easy it is to contrive a taxonomy. I didn’t even need to think of my own acronym.
 It is not without significance that the page image used on Climate Scepticism’s about page is of the Greek philosopher Pyrrho of Elis.
 A full account of the important role played by empirical scepticism when making decisions under uncertainty can be found in Nassim Taleb’s The Black Swan – The Impact of the Highly Improbable. A good precis can be found here.
 The brain rewards itself with dopamine whenever a conclusion is drawn. That’s why a sense of certainty in one’s position feels good. The open mind is not nearly as rewarding. The neurology of decision-making is covered at some length in Jonah Lehrer’s The Decisive Moment. A discussion of some of the issues can be found in this interview.
 As evident in the shift towards a story-telling framework for risk management, as outlined in AR6.
 In safety risk assessment this is known as the Globally At Least Equivalent (GALE) principle.
 I have reviewed AR5, WG3, Chapter 2 in some detail, starting here.
 The problem of the oversimplified causal narrative, as applied to accounts of forest fires, is discussed here.
 As, for example, here.
 For this choice of words I am indebted to Aviezer Tucker and his paper The epistemic significance of consensus.
 My views on the IPCC’s guidelines for the communication of uncertainty can be found here.
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This reads like a scholarly article worthy of being published in a learned journal. We should be honoured by its inclusion here.
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With my nitpicking hat on:
You quote Taleb saying ‘get their attention form sensational matters’. ‘form’ needs a [sic] or a correction?
X and Y were swapped around here:
“We all want executive summaries and sound bites such as ‘X happened because of Y’. But very few of us are interested in examining exactly what we mean by such statements – very few except, of course, for the empirical sceptics. In a messy world in which many factors may be at play, the more pertinent questions are:
To what extent was X necessary for Y to happen?
To what extent was X sufficient for Y to happen?”
It’s such an important point – and so well explained – that I thought I’d mention.
Earlier I was reading this while travelling on public transport. It was just the right length. It was a real pleasure. Those two jumped out at me. I’m not claiming exhaustion 😉
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“In practice, the theorizing and the narratives that trouble the empirical sceptic take many forms. It can be seen in the over-dependence upon mathematical models for which the tuning owes more to art than science. It can be seen in the readiness to treat the output of such models as data resulting from experiment, rather than the hypotheses they are.”
Those model hypotheses, so integral to AGW Climate Change theorists…
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Thanks John for a masterful framework bringing the most important strands together. A flag to rally around.
Follow the data: Indeed Data vs. Models is at the core of climatism. “Love of Theory is the root of all evil.”- statistician William Briggs
Look for the full risk profile: As in estimating Social Cost of Carbon, ignoring Social benefits of Carbon, and the costs of forgoing Carbon.
Interrogate Causal Arguments: Richard Lindzen:
The energy budget of this (climate) system involves the absorption and reemission of about 200 watts per square meter. Doubling CO2 involves a 2% perturbation to this budget. So do minor changes in clouds and other features, and such changes are common. In this complex multifactor system, what is the likelihood of the climate (which, itself, consists in many variables and not just globally averaged temperature anomaly) is controlled by this 2% perturbation in a single variable? Believing this is pretty close to believing in magic. Instead, you are told that it is believing in ‘science.’ Such a claim should be a tip-off that something is amiss. After all, science is a mode of inquiry rather than a belief structure.
Contrariness: William Happer:
Sometime in the future, perhaps by the year 2050 when most of the original climate crusaders will have passed away, historians will write learned papers on how it was possible for a seemingly enlightened civilization of the early 21st century to demonize CO2, much as the most “Godly” members of society executed unfortunate “witches” in earlier centuries.
Cultural Awareness: Charles MacKay on Collective Delusions
In the present state of civilization, society has often shown itself very prone to run a career of folly from the last-mentioned cases. This infatuation has seized upon whole nations in a most extraordinary manner. France, with her Mississippi madness, set the first great example, and was very soon imitated by England with her South Sea Bubble. At an earlier period, Holland made herself still more ridiculous in the eyes of the world, by the frenzy which came over her people for the love of Tulips. Melancholy as all these delusions were in their ultimate results, their history is most amusing. A more ludicrous and yet painful spectacle, than that which Holland presented in the years 1635 and 1636, or France in 1719 and 1720, can hardly be imagined. . . Money, again, has often been a cause of the delusion of multitudes. Sober nations have all at once become desperate gamblers, and risked almost their existence upon the turn of a piece of paper. To trace the history of the most prominent of these delusions is the object of the present pages. Men, it has been well said, think in herds; it will be seen that they go mad in herds, while they only recover their senses slowly, and one by one.
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Thanks for that, but can you think of a journal that would take it? 🙂
Thanks. I wouldn’t normally write something as long but this was a subject that needed room to breathe.
I am more than grateful to have my typos highlighted. I have corrected them now but, as you suggest, there may be more.
That was my second thought. But I wouldn’t attach a happy emoji to it. 😖
Loving the Briggs quote Ron.
It was Briggs who noted an essay on “chameleon” models
The author was focused on economic and financial models, but the principles pertain also to climate.
Really excellent summary, and some principles that would apply to many issues that seem to be more based on a collective hysteria rather than facts or evidence.
One typo: it should be ‘paid’, ‘payed’ is apparently a nautical term for applying caulking!
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Thank you for that, and keep those typos coming 🙂
Just catching up, after a busy day. John, permission to nail my colours to your mast, please?
I think it is to the mast of the good ship Pyrrho that all our colours are pinned.
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Of course, another example of policy-making without applying FLICC skepticism is the COVID policies imposed by governments. The UK experience is discussed here:
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Great post John.
before you started posting about “risk management” I had never heard anybody else giving in depth/real world experience on this re climate policy.
keep up the good work/posts, it’s appreciated.
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Thanks, Dougie. It’s always nice to get some encouraging feedback.
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No sooner have I pressed the publish button, and the BBC comes out with the perfect example of what I have been writing about:
It tells of a group of experts theorizing that 200,000 coastal properties are soon to be lost due to climate change. Indeed, it “is already happening” as far as Happisburg on the Norfolk coast is concerned. Coastal erosion is indeed a problem there.
But did the experts take into account that the data shows no acceleration of erosion over the last 2000 years? No.
Have they acknowledged the fact that erosion on the East coast is a legacy of glaciation? No.
I’ll leave you to determine which elements of my FLICC are being used here, whilst I pontificate over which elements of Cook’s FLICC he would accuse me of employing.
On a further note, I should point out that one of my purposes for adopting the FLICC acronym and using words like ‘deconstructing’ in the title was to ensure that a search for John Cook’s work would also find mine. For example, try googling ‘deconstructing climate scepticism FLICC’. I am pleased to say that Cliscep now upstages Cook in the listing. How long that will remain the case is anyone’s guess. But, in the meantime…
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Great article, John, very grounded, very clear. This could be expanded, with more example cases of the various points, to a publishable work.
I like this, of course: “Cultural awareness – i.e. never underestimate the extent to which a society can fabricate a truth for its own purposes.” For which there are many classic clues as to the fact that cultural fabrication is taking place (as you imply, a socially enforced consensus is one such). Although strictly, I might argue with “for its own purposes”, in the sense that cultural narratives are emergent and don’t have a ‘purpose’ originally founded in anyone’s consciousness (it’s a problem with human language that most words imply intent – to portray some of the characteristics of autonomous processes without implying intent, can be tricky). They are an evolved means of holding large groups together, in the face of the unknown and in despite of otherwise irresolvable issues; if you mean ‘purpose’ in this sense, then I have no quibble.
In the public domain, the narrative of certain climate catastrophe certainly has “taken on a life of its own”; cultures do indeed have an agenda of their own (via emotive selection, they are not sentient or agential). We can also measure this phenomenon with relative ease. Unfortunately, we can’t measure its presence or influence within the enterprise of science, or specifically climate science, because there simply isn’t the social data for this, although it would be surprising if there wasn’t at least a significant influence. Yet to date, mainstream science does not support the dominant (public) cultural narrative of certain imminent global catastrophe; so notwithstanding influence, it still holds out against the narrative at this time. However, when those such as Lomborg or Pielke Jr point this out, of course they are called deniers!
However, ‘public’ includes public authorities, whose language is demonstrably steeped in the above cultural narrative, and hence we would expect that policy ultimately implemented by these authorities will conform to cultural patterns. This also, is measurable, and it is so.
“It can be seen in the contributions of the myriad of activists who seek to portray the issues in a narrative form laden with social justice and other ethical considerations.”
Activism across nations (XR and Children’s Strike Weekly) indeed also conforms to cultural patterns.
“It can be seen in the imaginative but simplistic portrayals of climate change sceptics and their motives; portrayals that are drawing categorical conclusions that cannot possibly be justified given the ‘evidence’ offered.”
Indeed. This is straightforward out-group demonization, as has happened throughout the whole of history and no doubt before. But hidden under a cloak of psychological respectability, and using the deeply flawed ‘denier’ framing to indicate ‘anti-science’ or nefarious intent or pathological problems, or whatever else, all of which studiously avoid realities raised by your excellent article.
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Maybe FLICC would benefit from some tweaking:
Follow the Data
Look for full risk profile
Inspect causal claims
Construct contrary explanations
Call out cultural bias
BTW, I have no problem with “Interrogate”; my point is to have verbs for the last two.
I certainly have no problem with there being variations out there — it sort of goes with the idea that sceptics are individuals and such taxonomies have their limitations. Your version certainly benefits from each element reading as a piece of advice. My only qualm is that your fourth element could be interpreted as preferring one’s own theorizing to that of the majority, which isn’t quite what I had meant. Other than that, I would say go for it, Ron. Use whatever wording you prefer with my blessing and support.
Thanks for that. You are quite right to question the use of the word ‘purpose’. The way I might put it is this: there are indeed elements of society that act with purpose but they do so by constructing a truth, whilst thinking that they are discovering it, and this hints at there being something more profound going on that is neither sentient or agential. If you don’t mind I’ll keep the text as it is, complete with its ambiguity, if only to keep the punters guessing 🙂
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John, Point taken. My concern to have an acronym that empowers, i.e.a to do list of actions beyond a list of topics. I’m thinking:
Follow the Data
Look for full risk profile
Interrogate causal claims
Compile contrary explanations
Confront cultural bias
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Thank you John for such a thought-provoking essay.
Well, I say thought-provoking, but I couldn’t think of anything intelligent to say. So I picked up Bertrand Russell to see what he had to say about Pyrrho: not much, as it happens, but the Sceptics themselves get a couple of pages, including Carneades’ visit to Rome, which was not much appreciated by Cato.
Of Pyrrho, Russell says:
So we should be in the van of XR? Hail the modern sceptic who is also obdurate.
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Thank you for that. I like to think that the empirical sceptics are the survivors after the good ship Pyrrho ran aground. At least they had the common sense to swim ashore.
In the footnotes I mentioned Jonah Lehrer’s ‘The Decisive Moment’. Well, I’ve just remembered that it contains a good account of the brain chemistry behind the ‘theorizing disease’ and the advantages sometimes to be gained by engaging in slothful induction. He describes an experiment in which a rat is confronted with a T-shaped maze. Food is randomly placed in one or other arm of the maze but the dice is loaded so that the left arm contains the food 60 percent of the time. It does not take long before the rat recognises the randomness and follows the data, always searching the left arm for the food. Then the same problem was posed for Yale college undergraduates. Lehrer takes up the story:
“Unlike the rat, the students, with their elaborate networks of dopamine neurons, stubbornly searched for the elusive pattern that determined the placement of the reward. They made predictions and then tried to learn from their prediction errors. The problem was that there was nothing to predict; the apparent randomness was real. Because the students refused to settle for 60% success rate, they ended up with a 52% success rate. Although most of the students were convinced that they were making progress toward identifying the underlying algorithm, they were, in actuality, outsmarted by a rat.”
Now, I’m not suggesting that we should adopt the rat as our mascot, but…
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I see this as the parable of the rat and the sheep. Please note that although the rat did significantly better, a 97% consensus of the sheep have a new theory: “It’s not fair Mum.” We’re talking settled science here: nothing can in fact beat 52%. It’s just more contrarian talking points. Move on. Hopefully not into the path of that angry rat.
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It was probably remiss of me not to provide references that demonstrate the science behind the link between dopamine and scepticism. Better late than never, however. Here is one such link:
Most researchers do seem to be taking paranormal beliefs as their case study, e.g.:
It would be interesting to see if dopamine levels in the brain can be correlated with a propensity to believe mainstream beliefs, such as the existence of a climate crisis. One might expect that people with naturally low levels would be more resistant, but then I would be speculating wouldn’t I?
Another interesting area of speculation would be the levels of dopamine in the conspiracy theorist’s brain. One would expect them to be high; which just goes to show that conspiracy theorists and sceptics are quite different animals (if you are listening, Lewandowsky).
Scholarly and powerful.
Not to beg, but how about taxonomy of the climate true believer?
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Thank you for that.
The cheeky answer to your request would be to suggest that John Cook has already done the job for us. His FLICC applies to the climate true believer every bit as much as it might to the sceptic — just pick your examples appropriately. A more considered response might be to point out that, as a sceptic, I am in a good position to reflect upon what it means to be a sceptic. To do the same thing regarding true believers I would have to do what Cook has no qualms about doing — pontificate upon what is going on in the other guy’s head. It’s called having a theory of mind. I suppose I could have a go. I couldn’t possibly do a worse job than Cook.
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I just posted this link on another thread and it occurs to me that it is relevant to your request:
I think the key to understanding the mindset of the true believer is to let yourself be consumed with rage and contempt.